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American Born Chinese Depicts Asian-American Life Through a Limited Lens

The well-intentioned Disney+ series doesn't go far enough in dismantling stereotypes.
  • Michelle Yeoh in American Born Chinese (Photo: Carlos Lopez-Calleja/Disney)
    Michelle Yeoh in American Born Chinese (Photo: Carlos Lopez-Calleja/Disney)

    For some, “American Born Chinese” is a derogatory reference to Chinese Americans who were born in the U.S. It’s a term used to connote hierarchy in Chinese immigrant households and dismiss the connection that first or second generation children have to their Chinese roots and culture. But in the new Disney+ series American Born Chinese, based on Gene Luen Yang’s graphic novel of the same name, the term takes on a different meaning. For teenage protagonist Jin Wang (Ben Wang), it suggests that, despite his being born in the United States, his peers will always see him as “other.” No matter how hard he tries to assimilate, to be American, he’ll always be seen as Chinese.

    The reality of being caught between who you are and who others perceive you to be is one that many Chinese Americans (and other people of color) can understand. Wang deftly portrays this internal struggle, balancing Jin’s respect for his immigrant parents and their culture with his strong desire to be more like his white friends. His performance is complemented nicely by Jim Liu, who plays Wei-Chen, a foreign exchange student and Monkey Prince fleeing his father in Heaven.

    In other words, Wei-Chen isn’t a regular teenager. He’s the son of The Monkey King (Daniel Wu), a magical sage commonly found in Chinese myth, who is trying to protect Heaven from an uprising. Feeling dismissed by his father, Wei-Chen leaves his home and ends up in class with Jin, whom he believes is meant to be his guide to finding a mythical Fourth Scroll, which would stop the rebellion.

    The show attempts to give equal weight to both stories, but it falls short. The Monkey King subplot isn’t developed fast enough, which makes early episodes feel more confusing than intriguing. For instance, there’s a Bull Demon trying to take down the Monkey King, but it isn’t clear until the end of the season why Jin (or the audience) should care. This makes Wei-Chen’s constant presence feel almost burdensome, and even though the mythical subplot has an exciting conclusion, it does little to advance or explore Jin’s identity crisis.

    The cosmic story does at least give established Asian stars like Michelle Yeoh, Ronny Chieng, and James Hong room to shine. Yeoh, whose performance in Everything Everywhere All At Once recently made her the first actor of Asian descent to win the Best Actress Oscar, has the biggest presence, appearing as Guanyin, the goddess of empathy, who helps Wei-Chen on his journey. She is magnetic, as always, and her fight scenes are engaging, even if it isn’t always clear what she’s battling against. Meanwhile, Chieng and Hong provide comic relief as, respectively, an unconventional monk and the Jade Emperor, a major figure in Chinese mythology.

    These characters and Wei-Chen’s quest for the Fourth Scroll are all meant to signify the importance of Jin’s Chinese heritage. He must help Wei-Chen, just as he must embrace his Asian roots to become the man he wants to be. Yet in telling this story, the show presents an extremely narrow view of what it really is to be Asian American. Plenty of Asian Americans aren’t connected to the culture of their ancestors, but that shouldn’t make them any more or less Asian American.

    Of course, no single show should bear the burden of representing the entire spectrum of the Asian American experience. But it’s significant that connecting to an Asian motherland is shown as the key to embracing an Asian American identity. This is worth scrutiny because of how the series — which is part of the Disney machine — deals in Hollywood stereotypes.

    Ke Huy Quan in 'American Born Chinese' (Photo: Carlos Lopez-Calleja/Disney)

    At a recent Q&A promoting the show, Ke Huy Quan said that he initially turned down the guest role of Freddy Wong, a racist caricature from a cheesy ’90s sitcom that has found popularity on social media in the fictional world of the series. “I passed on it because I told our creative team that this is the type of portrayal that we do not want to see in 2023,” he said, per Variety. Watching his episodes, it’s easy to understand Quan’s hesitation. Freddy Wong’s entire identity revolves around being an immigrant who constantly gets injured doing questionable things. (His catchphrase is “What could go Wong?”) More than once, the audience is shown a viral clip of him getting hit in the head with a ceiling fan, and he doesn’t gain additional dimensions until late in the season. It’s debatable whether that payoff is good enough to warrant including so many offensive gags.

    It’s disappointing to see this particular actor in this role, despite the apparent good intentions of series creator Kelvin Yu. Quan’s comeback story — winning the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his work in Everything Everywhere All At Once — was a favorite in Hollywood this year, but it was also a bittersweet reminder of the industry’s cruelty toward minority performers. Because he couldn’t get a job, Quan left acting for 20 years, and he has said he only decided to return after seeing the film Crazy Rich Asians. Since then, Asian representation, specifically East Asian representation, has increased, but here he is in a show where a majority of his screentime is spent on cheap jokes. Watching American Born Chinese, it’s clear that Asians in Hollywood have yet to escape the stereotypical boxes they’ve been placed in for so long. In addition to the Freddy Wong character, Wei-Chen is initially meant to be reminiscent of Long Duk Dong, the notoriously offensive character in Sixteen Candles.

    To be fair, American Born Chinese presents these stereotypes in order to dismantle them, to show the depth of the people who have been boiled down to offensive tropes. But their inclusion also serves as a reminder of the limits Hollywood still places on Asian performers. One wonders, for instance, when Asian actors will have opportunities outside of projects that are specifically about the first or second generation Asian American experience. Hits as varied as Minari, Always Be My Maybe, To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, and Beef each incorporate that perspective into their storytelling. Cultural specificity is important. It’s what makes stories come alive. But it’s time for Hollywood to recognize that not all Asian Americans feel connected to a foreign country. A series like American Born Chinese can’t solve these problems on its own, but as a piece of work that is actively grappling with Hollywood stereotypes, it owes its audience some consideration of how complex these issues really are.

    American Born Chinese Season 1 will be released in its entirety May 24 on Disney+. Join the discussion about the show in our forums.

    Olivia Truffaut-Wong is a culture and entertainment writer. Follow her on Twitter @iWatchiAm.

    TOPICS: American Born Chinese, Disney+, Ke Huy Quan, Michelle Yeoh